U.S. to shelve Europe missile shield plans: report

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States will shelve plans to deploy anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, a step that would ease tensions with Russia, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

People demonstrate against plans to deploy a missile shield defense system in the town of Redzikowo, northern Poland, March 29, 2008. REUTERS/Lukasz Glowala/FORUM

If confirmed, the move by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration would cheer Moscow but could raise concerns in Eastern European countries which have looked to Washington for support against their former imperial master Russia.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer told Reuters Thursday that Warsaw had heard from different sources there were “serious chances” the U.S. anti-missile system would not be deployed in Poland.

Russian officials said they did not want to immediately comment on media reports that cited unidentified U.S. officials.

“We are waiting for confirmation of these reports,” a source in Russia’s Foreign Ministry said. “In principle, such a development would help the development of our bilateral relations with the United States.”

The newspaper said the decision followed a review ordered by Obama of plans for a shield that George W. Bush’s administration said was intended to protect the United States and its European allies from missiles launched from Iran or North Korea.

Obama called Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer Wednesday night to discuss missile defense, said Fischer’s spokesman, who added that the Czech government would make a statement at around 1000 GMT (6 a.m. EDT).

Polish and U.S. officials completed their talks on missile defense in Warsaw Thursday and were expected to issue a statement later in the day, Kremer said.

Obama, who is due to meet Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev next week in New York, says he wants better ties with Russia so that the two former Cold War foes can cooperate on Afghanistan and reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation.

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U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is visiting Baghdad, declined to comment on the Journal’s report.

The newspaper said Washington now believes that Iran’s long-range missile program has not progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the United States and European allies.

The Journal said the Obama administration had concluded that U.S. allies in Europe -- including NATO members -- face a more immediate threat from Iran’s short and medium-range missiles.

The Kremlin said Bush’s plans to deploy 10 two-stage interceptor missiles in Poland plus a related radar station in the Czech Republic were a direct threat to national security because they could neutralize Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Washington has insisted the plan was not directed against Russia, but U.S. companies such as Boeing Co and Raytheon Co have been working on possible compromises involving mobile or sea based missile defense systems.

The paper said the United States will order a shift toward the development of regional missile defenses for Europe that would be less controversial for Russia.

If the United States does shelve its missile plans, it would please the Kremlin but likely raise alarm in eastern Europe, which is still deeply suspicions of Moscow.

Reports said an announcement would be made Thursday, the 70th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland.

“This is very saddening that it happens on September 17. I hope this is just a coincidence,” said Witold Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, which advises to the president, told Reuters.

“This is very bad -- without the shield we are de facto loosing a strategic alliance with Washington. Let’s hope the Patriots will arrive, but who knows,” he said.

Additional reporting by Conor Sweeney in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw, Mohammad Zargham in Washington and Ross Colvin in Baghdad; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Stott; Editing by Ralph Boulton